Emma Powell: ‘It’ll get hot in the kitchen in the next 8 weeks’


Emma Powell: ‘It’ll get hot in the kitchen in the next 8 weeks’

ANNELIESE BURGESS speaks to the DA's shadow minister for foreign affairs about navigating Day Zero in Cape Town, her passion for informal settlements, her fear that Russia is meddling in our politics, and the Israel/Gaza conflict.


EMMA POWELL's first job after varsity was at the DA's federal head office. She moved from Durban to Cape Town and worked for the party for seven months — and hated it. Not the job, Cape Town. 

“Durban is such a friendly, warm place. You walk past someone, they greet you. People invite you round for a braai. And I just found Cape Town to be this big, cold, very cosmopolitan city, and I didn't like the energy. And I can't speak Afrikaans, which is a problem," she laughs. 

She quit and moved to Italy to teach English at Deloitte in Milan, but she returned in 2012 when she was offered a job in the City of Cape Town administration where Patricia de Lille became mayor.

“This time around, it was the most amazing experience," she says.

“It was also exhausting, difficult and complex, but working in the portfolio of informal settlements, water and sanitation, I was shown a world that I had never seen before, one that 14 million South Africans live in, and I came to care very deeply about this."

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Day Zero

Many challenges occurred during the seven years she worked in local government but the water crisis was the most prominent.

“Working in the office of the Mayoral Committee Member for Water and Sanitation and Informal Settlements, I used to get reports every week on dam levels, and I remember a report in December 2017 when the data I was seeing made me think ‘holy shit'," she says about the moment she realised something vast and dangerous was brewing.

“The officials were trying to manage the situation. These engineers are some of the best people in the world at what they do. Dr Gisela Kaiser is considered the world's leading expert on drought management from an urban perspective. They did not want the politicians involved, so we gave it a few weeks, but by January we were all meeting at 7 o'clock every morning in Patricia de Lille's office to manage what was then a full-blown crisis."

Powell was part of a three-woman communications team. “It was one of the wildest times of my life because there was so much conspiracy. People thought we were lying, but we were about to run out of water. And we had to raise green bonds. We had to redirect almost the entire capital budget, which was about R4 billion at that time, into augmentation projects. 

“People were asking why we weren't using desalination. We couldn't. It was too expensive. We couldn't afford it. So we went the aquifer route. It was a wild, wild time."

At the same time as the unprecedented Day Zero scenario, another crisis exploded — massive land invasions at sites across the city — and Powell was in the thick of that, too.

“There were coordinated land invasions where criminal networks would come with their Pajeros, Land Cruisers and Jeeps. They would get gangsters to burn the land and people to build corrugated iron shacks, and then overnight, within 24 hours, they would go in. We lost millions of rands worth of land parcels during that time."

No wonder Powell decided, after seven years of fighting fires, that she needed a change. In short order, she went to the University of Cape Town to complete the coursework for her master's in international relations, applied for the job of chief of staff in parliament for John Steenhuisen, then unexpectedly became an MP at the age of 31.


Powell says she's a radical feminist.

“I see everything through a feminist lens, and it was my singular goal not to go to parliament and simply take up space but to use my voice to advocate for people who didn't have a voice.

“John asked me what portfolio I wanted. I wanted human settlements because of my deep connection with the issue and my understanding of housing from working in local government. He made me deputy shadow minister for human settlements, and a year later I became the shadow minister."

“I took on the national minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, for appointments to her state-funded National Rapid Response Task Team, which was ostensibly going to resolve housing and water-related challenges across the country, when in fact it was a political campaign team, with members irregularly appointed at huge salaries at the taxpayer’s expense. We did a lot of work to expose what was going on there.

“My swansong in that portfolio was last year, three years after I had referred this matter to the Public Service Commission and the Public Protector for investigation. The Public Protector found Sisulu guilty of maladministration and contravening the constitution, and she was subsequently fired from cabinet."

That letter to Blinken 

Powell became the shadow minister for foreign affairs in April 2023 and says it was like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

“It was the Lady R. It was Brics expansion. We took the Department of Justice to court over issuing and transmitting the International Criminal Court arrest warrant [for Russian president Vladimir Putin]. It was the Gaza-Israel war. It's been a wild rodeo."

She tells me of her surprise at finding her face plastered on the front page of the Sunday Times some weeks ago. The story was related to the DA's call to several governments to assist in helping South Africa with additional capacity to monitor the May 29 election. 

“In a nutshell, the Multi-Party Charter wrote a letter to seven nations, including India, Ghana and Argentina, asking for assistance with domestic observers and investment in civic voter education. That went nowhere. We wanted to sharpen that request because we had officially asked the IEC [the Electoral Commission of SA] if they would allow additional contingents of international observers, given the stakes of this election. They said it was a Dirco [Department of International Relations and Cooperation] matter, and Dirco said they would not permit additional observers, and that concerned us.

“But this was also against the backdrop of the ANC's failure to disclose their financial interests. They are using the Chancellor House Trust as a front and only disclosing very small amounts of their funding. We raised that with the IEC and said, guys, listen, more needs to be done to monitor what's going on here. The IEC responded that they'd only look at it after the election. 

“There will be 24,000 voting stations across the country, and we, as the DA, can only get boots on the ground at between 4,000 and 5,000 of those. We know that anomalies and human error do occur. We know that there is a high chance of voter intimidation with MK [Jacob Zuma's new Umkhonto weSizwe Party] — they have already threatened violence if they don't get their way. So, the stakes are incredibly high.

Worried about election

“Things will get hot in the kitchen over the next eight weeks. We are very worried. Our concern is that if we don't manage to get observers into especially rural provinces like KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and Mpumalanga, the potential for irregularities to occur — at 3am when you leave out a zero, or you attribute the wrong count on the wrong line item.

“I have experience of this in our constituency in Atlantis in Cape Town, where, in 2021, the presiding officer attributed over 1,000 votes to a party called the DI that no one had ever heard of. I lodged a recount and it turned out the presiding officer had made an error and they were DA votes.

“But I could only lodge a recount because we had boots on the ground and a war room running that donors funded. People sent me counts and slips so I could aggregate and pick up anomalies. If that's not done in rural parts of the country, there will be 20,000 voting stations with no observers. We need civil society to step in. So I decided to write the letter.

“I briefed three publications, the Daily Maverick, Sunday Times and News 24. I gave them the list of the countries but used the letter to Blinken as an example. I knew that would be more of a news story than, say, the letter to a small Nordic country. The journalists forwarded that to the ANC for comment. And then all hell broke loose.

“Let's say that with the help of some strategists, they got onto the front foot on Saturday afternoon before the story landed, and they created the narrative that I was selling South Africa's sovereignty to the West while what we were trying to do is the very opposite — to ensure that South Africa's sovereignty is not undermined."

Bomb explodes

Powell says the firestorm that followed was something she had never had to navigate before.

“I had a data intelligence company contact me, saying they had picked up 10,000 original tweets on this and that it was moving in the RET, MK and ANC echo chambers. These Twitter accounts get repurposed to sow division, destabilisation, disharmony and mistrust.

“It blew up like a nuclear bomb. First, I woke up to my face on the front page of the Sunday Times, which I wasn't expecting. I was expecting, like, a page six story. And then the president went on TV and said that we were mortgaging the sovereignty of South Africa. These narratives come from their strategy groups, and they're well-oiled and well-funded. And they've got, we believe, foreign actors helping them. It was curious to see that within 24 hours, Russia Today was headlining with the banner running across the TV to say ‘official opposition interferes with South Africa's sovereignty by reaching out to the US'.

Russian interference

“It was only when a few mainstream journalists picked up the story that it started coming back into our circle on the heatmap. I did a lot of radio interviews. The French press reached out. Fox reached out. The BBC reached out. It became an international news story. And slowly, the narrative started to shift.

“Most rational people were beginning to say, ‘wait a minute, they aren't asking for State Department-level interference; they're asking for support for civil society'. And the idea that we want to run a parallel vote tabulation process because we don't trust the IEC is intellectually dishonest. We were asking for help to protect South Africa from sinister attempts by foreign actors to manipulate the election outcome.

“You just need to look at the Sahel region, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, the Central African Republic to know how that happens. Russia uses their African Corps, the rebranded Wagner Group, in those places. In places like South Africa, they use social media, artificial intelligence and cyber hacks."

Israel and Gaza

The DA has received a lot of flak for not openly condemning what is happening in Gaza and not publicly supporting South Africa's application to the International Court of Justice to prevent Israel from committing genocide in Gaza.

“We don't want to discredit or undermine the plight and suffering of the Palestinian people. And we are not saying that South Africa should not have gone to the ICJ. We respect the ICJ's right to determine this matter, and of course, when the court makes a ruling, we will abide by it. Still, I have been trying to point to a profound cognitive dissonance in the way South Africa has dealt with the Israel/Gaza conflict on the one hand and its absolute unwillingness to enforce accountability on the African continent, on the other.

“We're taking Israel to the ICJ at enormous cost but we're turning a blind eye to what's going on in Sudan, to what's going on in Zimbabwe, to the significant economic implications that has for South Africa. And it's made all the more glaring by the rhetoric of ANC leaders like Naledi Pandor who keep propagating this view that the international community does not attach the same value to African bodies as they do to white bodies.

“We have done nothing regarding referrals to, for example, the African Union's African Court on Human and People's Rights regarding the Sudan conflict, or any other conflict on our continent for that matter.

“In the Sudan, more than 200,000 civilians had lost their lives in what was essentially ethnic cleansing under Omar al-Bashir. South Africa had the opportunity in 2015 to exercise its obligations under the ICC Domestication Act and arrest Bashir here in South Africa. We chose not to. 

“Take the SADC [Southern African Development Community] election monitoring and observation report into Zimbabwe. The preliminary report essentially found that Emmerson Mnangagwa's election was a sham election. It was a stolen election. In the run-up to that election, we saw the passage of some abhorrent legislation criminalising civil society organisations, churches and oversight groups, labelling them as terrorists; opposition activists were thrown into jail. And when the SADC heads of state met, the observer report wasn't even tackled. It was filed away in a cabinet.

“There is this reticence to enforce accountability on the African continent. I believe that's because of the relationships between the liberation struggles that took place across the continent and the relationships that were forged between liberation parties. There is a reluctance to hold those individuals accountable. It's intellectually dishonest, and fewer and fewer people are buying what they're selling."

In the closing moments of our interview, Powell says  an individual's intrinsic right to be free is the thing she is most passionate about — the one thing that defines her.

“I am keen on and passionate about international relations because the fault lines that we are navigating as an international community have never been more serious. Not in a generation has it been more serious. It's a new Cold War. The political scientist Samuel P Huntington argues that it is a battle between civilisations, between closed and open societies. I believe that too. This is about the kind of world that we want to build, preserve and live in. And that is why we have to stand in powerful opposition to the ANC's dalliance with actors like Russia, Iran and their proxies."

♦ VWB ♦

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